- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — After winning a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals last fall, Ronnie Belliard thought his big pay day had finally arrived.

In search of a lucrative, long-term deal, Belliard, just 31, believed he had plenty of good baseball left in him. However such a deal never came his way.

Then, four days into spring training, Belliard finally found a suitor in the Washington Nationals. But the Nationals hardly were offering him the long-term financial security he was seeking.

“I decided to come here because of [manager] Manny Acta,” said Belliard, who was signed to a nonguaranteed minor league contract worth about $500,000. “I played for him in the Dominican and in the World Baseball Classic. I know I have a chance to be a utility guy and they know I can play third, short, second and even first.”

So far in this camp, Belliard — who started 14 of 16 postseason games for the Cardinals last October — has embraced his new role as a bench player. Knowing the Nationals starting infield is set with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Cristian Guzman, second baseman Felipe Lopez and first baseman Nick Johnson — who should return to the club’s lineup early in the season while recovering from a broken right leg — Belliard sees himself as a mentor to his younger teammates.

“I have a chance to be around these young guys,” said Belliard, who was also an All-Star second baseman with the Cleveland Indians in 2004. “I’ve been in this situation before in 2004. I went to Cleveland and everybody was young, everybody was a rookie. Here, there are a couple of guys that got a couple of years in and a couple of rookies, but I think I’m good at it.”

Almost instantaneously, Belliard became a clubhouse favorite, especially among the Nationals’ large Dominican contingent. In December, Jose Rijo, a special assistant to general manager Jim Bowden, spoke to Belliard in the Dominican Republic about his contract situation. Belliard told Rijo that he was going to be patient and wait to see if any offers came his way.

“I’m surprised that 30 teams, and not all of them have a good infield as good as Ronnie, and nobody offered him anything,” Rijo said. “I was very, very surprised. Today, [bench coach] Pat Corrales was hitting ground balls and I was catching for Corrales and Corrales said, ‘Look at this kid. If you don’t say stop, he’ll never stop.’ ”

A high priority on the Nationals’ offseason to-do list was to bolster the team’s bench. Belliard, a proven right-handed bat, gives Washington just that. Belliard is a career .272 hitter and a veritable doubles machine. In his eight big league seasons, Belliard has averaged 31 doubles.

“He’s an All-Star, he’s good, he’s an awesome player,” Lopez said. “He’s been teaching me a couple things at second base. He’s a good guy. He’s got a great attitude and he helps out. He’s a solid player.”

Belliard was drafted as a shortstop in the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system in 1994. He then moved to second and plays third in the Dominican Winter League every year. With Guzman’s surgically repaired right shoulder still bothering him, the Nationals are going give Belliard a look at shortstop during the Grapefruit League season as an insurance policy in case Guzman has a setback with his shoulder injury.

“He brings a lot,” Acta said. “He’s an energy guy and a throwback ballplayer. He can play wherever a ground ball is hit to. This guy can play shortstop, I’ve seen him play short, and we’re probably going to throw him out there, too. He knows how to play the game and knows his role here. He’s going to be a very important piece for us.”

Belliard sees this season as a chance to show himself as a productive player when most baseball officials thought differently.

“I don’t think I have to prove anything to anybody,” Belliard said. “When I have to prove to people, I prove it that I can still play out there every day. This is my challenge, to come off the bench and be successful.”

Still, one of the only things missing from Belliard’s resume is a Gold Glove.

“I think if I would have stayed in the American League last year I would have been a contender to win a Gold Glove,” Belliard said. “I got traded and thank God I’ve got a World Series ring.”

Belliard’s best season came in 2005 with the Indians when he batted .284 with 36 doubles, a career-high 17 home runs and 78 RBI in 130 games. Last season he combined to hit .272 with 30 doubles, 13 home runs, and 67 RBI with the Indians and Cardinals.

He calls winning the World Series as an unbelievable moment, an irreplaceable feeling.

“In my whole career, I was like, ‘Man, I’ve been around, and to be in the playoffs only one time,’ ” Belliard said. “I was looking forward to be in the playoffs and St. Louis gave me that chance and we went all the way. I don’t know how it [World Series ring] looks because they are going to send it to me because I think they’re going to give everybody their rings on Opening Day.”

Said Rijo: “If we had three Ronnie Belliard’s here, we would be in way, way better shape. Not because of the ability but because of the mentality. His attitude that he brings to the organization is a positive thing. He likes to work and get all the people better. I would like to have him on my team anywhere.”

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